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Why Everyone Should Learn Sign Language

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Pitt chapter.

I was first formally introduced to American Sign Language in my AP Psychology class sophomore year of high school. There, we were learning about spoken language acquisition; and how babies pick up spoken language without formal instruction. At the bottom of the page, in a small “fun fact” section, the textbook mentioned that babies learning ASL go through the same acquisition phases as babies learning spoken language. They babble, just with their hands. They develop two-word phrases but with signs. 

It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I would take my first ASL class. Regardless, I fell in love with it. It was always fascinating to me, but there were no opportunities at my high school to learn ASL, and I didn’t know about the program at Pitt until after class registration had passed my freshman year. So, when I walked into the classroom for the first time, I was excited, but very very nervous. I remember reading the syllabus and noticing that the classroom is “voice off”, meaning that no students are allowed to speak. This is out of respect for the instructor, who is deaf. Although I was overcome with nerves, I have now almost completed two semesters of ASL and I’m planning to earn Pitt’s ASL Certificate. I have made great friends and learned so much. 

Since starting ASL, I’ve been amazed at both its complexity and convenience. Although not a spoken language, ASL is just as complex as any spoken language. It conveys complex, abstract ideas, has grammatical rules, slang, dialects and idioms. My ASL professor, Kristen, enjoys teaching it, writing: “ It is a very unique language that is visual and its grammatical structure is different from English. I enjoy teaching ASL because it is my passion. Students like you are my inspiration which is why I enjoy teaching so far.” Also, like spoken language, there is no one universal sign language. In the United States, you are most likely to encounter ASL, but others may use French Sign Language (one of ASL’s direct influences), Mexican Sign Language (LSM) or others. 

So, what’s the purpose of ASL? Perhaps most obviously, people learn ASL to communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing people for which it is their primary method of communication. If you are planning to work in healthcare, customer service, retail, or any other career where you will interact with people daily, learning a second language, such as ASL, is a valuable skill. Depending on your choice of career, you can focus your studies on a certain area. Work in a grocery store, then learn signs for food and money! Planning to work in healthcare; learn different signs of illness or the human body. You don’t have to be an expert, as deaf people usually have interpreters provided depending on the situation, but a simple understanding of ASL and Deaf culture goes a long way. My ASL professor writes: “Communication and connection are two of the benefits of learning ASL.  By learning ASL, everyone learns how to engage in activities, attend Deaf events, and participate in Deaf culture that expands their knowledge and skills that apply to their real-world careers and families/friends.

Although ASL is primarily used to communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing, I believe it can benefit hearing people as well! Most obviously, ASL is the best way for hearing people to communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing. Although gesturing or writing to communicate may work, sign language is the best way to communicate. Even the most basic of signs, like HELLO, PLEASE, THANK-YOU, DEAF, and HEARING, can make a conversation easier. 

ASL is also beneficial for communication between hearing people. In certain emergencies (or even if you’re just trying to drop in on some gossip), it may not be advisable to talk and make noise. In these situations, ASL would permit full, complex communication without a sound. In other situations, someone may just not want to talk. They may be emotional, overwhelmed, or have some other reason for not wanting or being able to talk. Here, simple signs may be enough to convey “I’m okay” or “I just need a minute”. Finally, an unfortunate reality is that we’re all getting older, and for those who are hearing, that means our hearing slowly starts to fade. For some, that means speech becomes intelligible, and it’s difficult to have conversations with background noise or with large groups of people. Learning some signs now will make this transition easier and in my opinion less scary! 

While most people rely on their hearing as a guaranteed sense, this isn’t always true. If someone uses hearing aids or has cochlear implants in order to hear, they only have their hearing capabilities while that technology is functioning. If something were to happen to prevent repairs or upgrades (perhaps a global pandemic?), someone who relies on hearing technology would have no access to communication. But, with knowledge of signs, they would have access to communication whether or not they chose to use their assistive technology. 

Also, ASL is a different way of thinking! There are concepts similar yet different to English, and the grammar is arranged differently. Although difficult at first, I’ve found it interesting and rewarding that I’ve slowly been able to acquire these different concepts and convey more complex ideas. A year ago I couldn’t spell my name in ASL, and now I can talk about a full shopping list or discuss the classes I’m taking next semester!

Now, this isn’t a call for you to go off and become the next best and brightest ASL student. However, it is a call to learn more about ASL and how it may add value to your life. Although Googling the ASL alphabet and learning to spell your name is a start, try your best to find learning resources from deaf signers. It’s like learning Spanish from someone who doesn’t know it natively. Although they may be great at speaking and understanding the language, they don’t have the cultural understanding attached. Look and see if your university has ASL classes. If not, some universities offer online classes! Regardless, with a little practice, your ASL (or whatever other sign language you choose) will be CHAMP in no time.

Alison is a second-year student at the University of Pittsburgh, and she is currently serving as an editor and writer. Her favorite things to write about are video game/pop culture commentary, music recommendations, and mental health advice. Alison is majoring in Communication Science and Disorders, minoring in English Literature, and working towards a certificate in American Sign Language. In addition to Her Campus, she is a member of the Honors College and National Student Speech Language Hearing Association chapter at Pitt. She is also a research assistant at the Brain Systems for Language Lab at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. In the future, she plans to attend graduate school for either Audiology or Speech-Language Pathology. In her free time, Alison loves to read, play video games, listen to music, and hang out with her cat, Peanut Butter.